$1200 Playmat, Y’all: Is the playmat secondary market real?

I assume everyone knows what a playmat is, but just in case you don’t, a playmat is usually a rubber-backed rectangle of cloth one puts their cards on during play because game store tables are (often correctly) assumed to be absolutely filthy. Playmats have been around for a very long time, but, at least in my experience playing Magic, they didn’t really start to take off until the early 2010s. After that they became fairly ubiquitous in CCG and LCG spaces both as prizes, entry bonuses for events, and plain old retail items. So, it should come as no surprise that Flesh and Blood, much like its contemporaries, has playmats featuring art from various cards.

In my estimation, FAB lends itself particularly well to mats as there are discreet zones where cards do as opposed to Magic which has a decent amount of variability between how players arrange their cards. Early FAB playmats were given out to retail stores, as prizes in Armory kits, and as prizes in OP events (there are also some special cases like Judge thank you gifts). Some of these were plentiful, some were fairly rare, but almost all of them were clustered in NZ out of the gate, and early prices in the US were relatively high – usually $70-100 for an Amory mat as opposed to the $20-30 one would expect to pay for a random non-FAB-branded playmat, and thus the playmat market was born. FAB has a lot of good art, and there was an obvious appeal to the mats, so some level of desirability makes sense, but the prices have really gotten out of hard for the rarer mats.

The $100 playmat price point seemed high, but I have paid that much for a mat before so it didn’t seem detached from reality. $100 is closer to the low end of FAB playmat prices though, and that’s what today is really about: me asking “what the hell is everyone thinking with these $800-1200 playmats?” Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself here. The playmats in question tend to have a similar theme: limited amounts given out (usually sales posts claim a specific number) and the assumption, I suppose, is that their rarity inherently gives them this absurdly high value. At their respective peaks, it was cheaper to buy a CF Alpha Tunic than an Art of War playmat, and let’s not even discuss the Enlightened Strike mat. Yes the playmats are rarer than an alpha L, but WAY more people want the Tunic. Oh, and unlike the CF Tunic which has a discreet print run and an assurance that no more will be distributed, there will almost certainly be more Art of War playmats given out at other countries’ nationals. As far as I know, LSS has never given a “print run” for a playmat.

Now, I realize that literally anything can be a collectable if fewer exist than there are people who want them, but the mark ups here seem very aspirational to me, and the volume of different mats hitting the market is ever increasing. In a little over a year of FAB, I can, off the top of my head, think of over two dozen unique ones without even trying hard. You can very easily get a FAB-themed mat printed if you want something clearly attached to the game. LSS hands out their zone templates, high res art assets (for some but not all cards), and is generally blasé about you ordering custom playmats with these assets as long as they’re for personal use and not for profit. I paid $30 apiece to have custom mats printed by Inked Gaming using the Shiyana and Kassai art from LSS’s site.

Update (9/16/21): Since writing this last year, LSS did a lot to clarify their position on using their art assets, and I would no longer endorse using the high res art to make playmats with LSS art assets. Things were a bit more fast and loose last fall, and I’ll leave the original text above for historical purposes. However, like I said, I would not recommend doing what is described in the preceding paragraph.

On a personal level I’m also kind of confused about what exactly people are doing with these? Remember, playmats more or less exist to get dirty instead of your cards. If you paid a normal price for one, you play with it, maybe switch it up with some other mats you own as the mood strikes you, it gets dirty, you toss it in the washing machine, and everything is fine. Though it will show wear over time, that’s fine, they hold up for years, especially if you rotate though a few. What does one do with a thousand dollar playmat? I can’t imagine that you actually use it. So now you deal with the storage question. Cards can be kept in binders or displayed in cases, playmats essentially need to be framed like art if you want to show them off, otherwise, they get rolled up, stuffed into a tube, and stashed away like some forgotten treasure map. As a collectable, they seem challenging to enjoy if you’re too invested in them to actually use them, and even if you actually do want to treat them as art, the branding and zones make it a bit awkward. Honestly, if you want to frame the art, there’s a good chance that the artist sells prints which are going to have sharper images than the mats since paper is generally a better surface than cloth for printing on. So again, they’re a bit of an odd collectable, but how are they as an investment? They strike me as a pretty dicey place to stash your money. Where do you think they’re going from $800? Are people going to pay $2000 for them in a year? In 10 years? What makes you think that? With a lot of these very high dollar mats, I’ve seen 1-2 sell when they’re first introduced and then the prices drop (sometimes by hundreds of dollars in a couple weeks). Moreover, what guarantee do you have that LSS isn’t going to just print or distribute more? To me, these have all of the same risks that most promos carry, but with a much higher degree of risk because the audience for them is very niche.

So if $1200 play mats are too expensive, what should an expensive playmat cost? I’m sure that there is some niche channel out there where a handful of high rollers are exchanging unique playmats for princely sums, but to get a basis for the rest if us, I’ll to use a more accessible metric to do my research: completed ebay sales. If we search for “playmat” in the “CCG Playmat” category and check completed sales, the top sale is a $550 Gray Spellground mat which is notable for being iconic, at least if you played CCGs back in the 90s. Oh yeah, and on that note, it’s 26 years old. After that we’ve got best offers on a Blizzard promotion mat, a Yu-Gi-Oh! Judge mat, and then we’re already under $400 range for a Yu-Gi-Oh! Top 8 mat. A big chunk of the $200+ sales are, like the Spellground mat, square cloth, non-neoprene mats that are either limited edition and/or very old. After that it’s more of the same with a bunch of anime playmats thrown in as we tick down to $100. There are a small number of exceptions for Magic mats with art by particularly notable artists (Rebecca Guay, Seb McKinnon, and Yoshitaka Amano), which again, tend to be either old or have discreet edition print runs. In terms of live auctions, I see a lot of Seb playmats (which were $50CAD during his Kickstarter) listed at $250, but none are selling. What is selling? In general, limited edition playmats tend to sell for about $30-100 with a couple upper outliers for particularly rare and/or old mats or limited editions.

So what are potential turn around here? Well, if you really want to make money in playmats, it seems like you’d be well-served by waiting for Seb’s next Kickstarter, buying a bunch at like $40, holding them a couple years then flipping them for $100-175. For FAB, prices have been trending down as Alpha Investment mats have hit the market. Average playmat prices have moved from that $75-100 range down to $50-70. The rarer mats are still exceptionally high though, and they would make me incredibly nervous if I was buying them with any intent to ever sell.

One of Seb McKinnon’s Mats that sold recently

My strong advice to you is to treat playmats as what they are – a functional, if attractive, gaming accessory that you will use to play on. Buy them at prices that you’re comfortable paying under the assumption that you will own them until you decide to throw them away. Do not ascribe value to them as a long term place to store money the way you would with something like a cold foil legendary where you can reasonably assume that you’ll be able to use it to play and then sell it to recoup some of your costs or even make a profit in the future. Definitely don’t treat it like a sealed first edition box that you can throw in a closet and assume it will build value over time. If you happen to acquire a “limited 1 of 8!” playmat from an OP event, and people are still throwing hundreds of dollars at these, I highly recommend putting it up for sale before you even leave the event grounds.

To close out on a more positive note, I do want to note that I enjoy playmats quite a bit. CCG art is necessarily pretty small, and often times this means a lot of detail goes unappreciated. So seeing it blown up for a mat can be a cool experience. They’re also, to a degree, a statement of your personal taste or aesthetics. Sitting down at an event and rolling out your playmat is one of the first things you do that will give your opponent and impression of you (so don’t be that creepy guy who shows up with a mat featuring near-naked anime girl who looks to be all of twelve years old). As a lover of aesthetically pleasing objects, I think it’s nice to bring something appealing or quirky with you to your play space.

I still enjoy unrolling this Netrunner Day Job playmat regardless of what game I’m playing because it brings me joy as an object. I forget if I got that one at an event or bought it for $20-25 or so (the going rate for Netrunner event mats back in the day). But you also shouldn’t feel constrained to card art, plenty of CCG artists produce art for mats that are distinct pieces not featured on card. While I’m talking about my collection, I’ll throw up a couple other mats I have to give you an idea of prices on stuff that people (or at least I) will/have paid for these things.

This one was given away at a Judge prize for MagicFest in 2019 for the 1st quarter of the year. The art was originally on a Magic Judge Promo that was given out in 2009. It was one of the cards that I never managed to track down when I was actively blinging out my Magic collection back in the early 2010’s before I sold out. So, getting it on a playmat felt like a nice gesture to my CCG past as well as getting another cool mat. I paid $60 for it yesterday and will hopefully have it in hand in a week or so.
This is definitely on the high end of what I’ve spent on a mat at $120, but it was direct from Rebecca Guay, one of my favorite artists period, not just among people who do game art. It’s a re-envisioned Serra Angel that evokes her work on the Armada Serra Angel Comic from the 90s.
I bought this alternate color limited edition mat (which is also way thicker and nicer than a normal mat) directly from Peter Mohrbacher at a GenCon some years ago. I paid somewhere in the $30-40 range for it.
Just so you don’t think I don’t have any FAB mats, I did pay like $90 for this girl back in August. I think that might have been a little high, but I really wanted a Dorinthea mat.

Playmats can definitely be like any other collectable in that there is some aspect of “the search” in the effort to find them and the pay off when you do. There are usually a few that I’m trying to actively chase down, and there are always more being released or that I discover years after their release. Here are my current white whales: the playmats I’d love to get my hands on and which the search to find them has been consuming me lately.

I was unaware of Seb McKinnon’s Kickstarter model of playmat sales when this was available, but his take on Cuombajj Witches is just beautifully composed and tragically is not one of the mats I’ve seen for sale at all on the secondary recently.
Johannes Voss did these for Grand Prix Chiba 2015. Maybe it’s just the kinship I feel for other ladies with pink hair, but ugh do I want this mat. The last one I saw up for sale tragically wouldn’t ship outside of Japan.

To wrap up, playmats are cool. You should definitely get at least one so that your precious cards are kept of possibly suspect tabletops. Find something that you like, that makes you happy to see and put on a table. Just don’t spend money on them with the intent to make a future profit, or even to recover your initial costs.

*Header Image: Day Job by Matt Zeilinger

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